Eugene A. Nida: Theoretician of Translation

By Stine, Philip C. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Eugene A. Nida: Theoretician of Translation


Stine, Philip C., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


When the history of the church in the twentieth century is written, the name of Eugene Nida will figure prominently. Nida brought about a revolution in the field of Bible translation, which resulted in millions of people in hundreds of languages gaining access to the Bible in an unprecedented way. The resulting impact on the growth and development of the church will continue to be felt throughout this century.

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Born November 11, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Eugene A. Nida passed away August 25, 2011, in Madrid. He is survived by his second wife, Dr. Elena Fernandez-Miranda, whom he married in 1997. His first wife, Althea, had passed away in 1993.

Through his numerous books and publications and extraordinary lecture schedule, Nida was able to help scholars, translators, and specialists in Christian missions find new ways to think about effective communication. William Smalley noted, "The promotion of professional expertise, the development of translation theory and of translation procedures based on such theory, began when Eugene A. Nida joined the American Bible Society staff in 1943." (1) For more than fifty years, Gene Nida was the leader of the translation program of the American Bible Society, and subsequently the intellectual leader of the global program of the United Bible Societies, as well as consultant to that organization.

Before Nida, Bible translations were primarily produced by missionaries, whose approach was generally to produce a formally equivalent translation, sometimes based on the original languages, but often based on translations available in European languages such as English or French. Their work was sent to London, Amsterdam, or New York for checking before being published.

Nida realized that for readers and listeners to understand the Bible, they needed translations that, as much as possible, were produced by native speakers; furthermore, he knew that these translations had to be checked in the field with the translators. As he traveled and consulted with translators, using concepts from linguistics, cultural studies, communication sciences, and psychology, he developed a practical approach to translation that he called dynamic equivalence or functional equivalence, the goal of which was to make the translation clear and understandable as well as accurate. In addition, he developed a pedagogic method so that translators from a wide range of educational backgrounds could learn how to apply the method.

Nida's methods can be seen in translations such as the Good News Bible, the French Francais Courant, the German Die Gute Nachricht, and the Spanish Version Popular, translations with which he had some direct involvement. But most contemporary translations such as the NRSV or NIV also show his influence. Translators in hundreds of languages have similarly produced Bibles that are easily understood throughout a language-speaking area.

Formation and Schooling

At the tender age of four, Nida acknowledged a call to be a missionary. Later at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he studied Greek and Latin, he thought he might work in Bible translation in Africa, so he studied the work of the linguists Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield. He graduated in 1936 summa cum laude, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, earning one of the highest ratings or GPAs in the university's history.

At a Bible club at UCLA he learned of the work of Cameron Townsend, founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators. In 1936 Nida studied and also taught at Townsend's summer camp and then went briefly to Mexico to undertake translation himself. Poor health forced him to return to California, where in 1939 he completed a master's degree at the University of Southern California in New Testament Greek. …

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